No one laughed when handsome, graying Fuzzy Levane was made head coach of the New York Knickerbockers for this season, but a considerable number of people groaned. These were Fuzzy's friends (and he has lots of 'em) who, never doubting his talent, had hoped he would one day be put in charge of a somewhat more promising team of pros. New York had finished last in its division three years in a row, and the losing habit had apparently sapped all the confidence from a group of players who were among the best shooters in basketball. They seldom played together on offense, and rarely were quick, or even eager, to help each other out on defense.
Well, Fuzzy's friends have stopped groaning. New York is leading the league; they have beaten the division champs, the Boston Celtics, twice in a row; confidence is bursting out all over; and the teamwork is superb. The question, of course, is—what happened?
The answer lies in Levane's personality. Fuzzy radiates warmth and friendliness like an old-fashioned potbellied stove. Instead of desperate appeals to pride and impassioned exhortations, which his two predecessors in the job had tried in their vain attempts to inspire the Knicks, he has used a gentle, undemanding encouragement. It is not a calculated effort; Levane is, genuinely, a mild and magnanimous man. The chances are that an artificial approach to smoothing away problems would have failed. But Levane's natural warmth of spirit has thawed the inhibiting chill of defeatism. The talent inherent in each player has been released, allowing him to submit his skills to the severest test without fear of excessively harsh reprimand or embarrassment if he occasionally fails. This has been of great benefit to everyone on the squad, particularly to young Charlie Tyra and veteran Carl Braun. Tyra is vastly improved as a shooter, an art for which confidence is an incalculable asset. But the change in Braun has been of even greater significance to the team. Braun has now, firmly and with assurance, taken over the job of floor leader left behind by the great Dick McGuire when he was traded to Detroit. The Knicks look to him for direction the way the Celtics look to Bob Cousy and the Hawks look to Slater Martin.
Fuzzy Levane's contribution has not been solely in the lifting of morale. Realizing the offensive limitations of Tyra and Ray Felix when they play in the pivot, he has built an attack that leaves the middle wide open, using three men outside and two in the corners. Now, when Sears or Naulls drives in, say on simple reverses, there is no rival big man like Bill Russell or Johnny Kerr waiting there to block the shot. This is no great innovation, but it took courage to break away from the established Knick pattern. Levane has also introduced one basic concept that differs from established practice throughout the pro league. It has been axiomatic, on attack, to "move toward the ball." It means, in an oversimplified description, simply this: player A passes the ball to player B and moves toward him, helping to set up a screen or block over which B can shoot.
Fuzzy's attack depends on "moving away from the ball." Again oversimplified, it goes this way: player A passes to player B and moves away from the ball, taking up a position where he can screen or block for player C, who receives the pass from player B. This basic pattern demands perfect timing among three men. Therefore it has not only surprised rival clubs by its novelty, but it has made teamwork obligatory for the Knicks, and thus has served to weld them more firmly together. It has been a big factor in New York's success.
The firing of mild-mannered Coach Andy Phillip, after only 10 games, by trigger-tempered St. Louis Owner Ben Kerner was the result of many things, primarily the inevitable clash of these two wildly different personalities. But there is one especially interesting aspect. Kerner was disturbed by Phillip's insistence that his players refrain from complaining to the referees over doubtful calls, and his refusal to do so himself. But what the league needs, possibly more than anything else, is more coaches like Phillip who insist on such intelligent, sportsmanlike behavior. The referee should be allowed to do his job, and the spectator should be allowed to enjoy the game, without infantile exhibitions of pique by professional athletes.